Over the past few months, I have been meditating and thinking deeply about the condition of my heart. Our Monday morning men’s Bible study has been exploring this issue as well. Proverbs 4:23 reads, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
I have been helped immensely in understanding the nature of the human heart from the Puritan John Flavel’s excellent book Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God. He begins with this profound statement: “The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart TO God, and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart WITH God.”
We know by experience that keeping our hearts WITH God is one of the most difficult aspects of growing in maturity in the Christian life. Like the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, we find that our hearts are prone to wander and prone to leave the God we love. It seems that almost every moment our hearts become attracted to things that draw our attention and affections away from Christ.
Flavel argues that the unregenerate sinner whose heart has not yet been set free by God’s sovereign grace lives in rebellion. He says that a sinner “opposes his Maker, as the First Cause, by self-dependence, as the Chief Good, by self-love; as the Highest Lord, by self-will; and as the Last End, by self-seeking.”
He provides six overarching themes that will help us to guard our hearts. First, we must frequently examine the condition of our own hearts. Second, we should have a deep humiliation for the disordered evils of our hearts. Third, it includes earnest prayer for God’s grace to purify our defiled hearts. Fourth, we should strongly avoid occasions and places where our hearts would be tempted to sin. Fifth, it includes a constant and holy zeal to protect our hearts from sin. Sixth, we should realize that God’s presence is always with us and that He searches all things—even the deepest recesses of our hearts through His omniscience.
Flavel admonishes us that “heart-work” is one of the hardest things we will do in the Christian life, and yet, this work must be continual. Why should we protect our hearts? What are the biblical reasons that God commands us to guard our hearts?
He offers several considerations. First, and foremost, we guard our hearts to the glory of God. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. One of the chief ways we glorify God is to guard our hearts and seek His majesty above all.
Second, we must pay careful attention to how our public testimony can be negatively impacted by not guarding our hearts. He warns against the sin of hypocrisy in that we can perform outward religious duties yet have a corrupt heart that is far from the Lord. He urges us that when sin first arises in our hearts that we immediately hate it and use the Scripture to root it out. Psalm 119:11 says, “ I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Flavel says this, “To suffer sin to lodge quietly in the heart, to let your heart habitually and without control wander from God, is a sad, a dangerous symptom indeed.”
I love the imagery he uses here. Think about sin living quietly deep down in your heart. That sin is at home. It’s comfortable there. You’ve grown accustomed to it and that sin does not bother you. That sin has become a habit that causes you to wander from Christ. Because sin has become “at home” in the recesses of your heart, you aren’t even aware anymore which puts you in a dangerous and sad situation
Third, Flavel asserts that when you allow your heart to wander and you give in to sin, it produces a lack of assurance and restlessness. We’ve all known this from experience. When we give in to sin and wander from the Lord, we often feel that distance. That anxiety. That lack of assurance of our salvation. For the truly saved person, our assurance is not based upon our feelings, but upon the objective work of Christ on our behalf on the cross.
When we trust in Him for salvation, He credits His righteousness to us, and we stand in a permanent position of acceptance before a holy God. That position does not change. But when we sin, our perception changes. We often wonder if God has stopped loving us. We feel the guilt and sting of our sin. It’s not that God has moved away from us, but that we have moved away from Him by not guarding our hearts.
Flavel provides the fourth reason why we should guard our hearts: It provides stability when we are faced with temptation. He writes, “The careless heart is an easy prey to Satan in the hour of temptation.” A wayward, hardened heart is fertile ground for the enticing allurements of our enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Proverbs 4:13 commands us to guard our hearts w
ith all vigilance. This is our responsibility. Yet, we are not left to our own devices. Without the sovereign working of the Spirit, this becomes nothing more than self-help and moral improvement.
Rest in the promise from Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You and I have the responsibility to guard our hearts. Nevertheless, God works in us both to give us the desire to love Him and the requisite ability to love Him. This power does not come from within us, but comes from the sovereign hand of our faithful God.
“Heart-work” takes time. It involves adjusting our priorities. It involves keeping a close watch over our hearts. It involves diligence and watchfulness. I have found one of the key ways to guard my heart is to pray as David did in Psalm 139:23–24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
I want you to notice how David prays. He asks God to search his heart and thoughts. He knows that God is omniscient. Our Lord is not “learning” anything new or gaining information that He did not already have as the eternal King. This searching is for David’s benefit. He needs to be keenly aware of what lies deep in his heart and only God can expose it and bring it to light.
How does David end the prayer? He asks God to LEAD him in the way everlasting. Is that the ultimate desire of your heart? That Christ alone would lead you. That he would sovereignly direct your path as Lord? That you would submit your will to His will?
Let us be thankful that God never leaves us nor forsakes us. When our hearts are prone to wander, He overcomes our resistance and disobedience through sovereign grace and brings us once again back to the cross. We behold the crucified Savior and remind ourselves afresh of the tender mercies of our forgiving God. We want to guard our hearts because Jesus has become our greatest Treasure!
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life!